Harper realigns foreign policy

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Osprey, Saturday, July 22, 2006

The realignment of Canadian foreign policy has been apparent this month from Stephen Harper's business-like White House visit and his unambiguous support for Israel in its war with Hezbollah, a position shared by the United States, though not the Europeans, at the G8 summit.

Where the Liberals under Paul Martin chose to run against George W. Bush, to the point of putting him in their attack ads, Harper prefers to do business with him.

But the Prime Minister was careful on his July 6 visit to the White House to keep it to business, so that he couldn't be portrayed at home as Bush's poodle.

White House visits come in all shapes and sizes, from brief Oval Office encounters, to signings of bilateral accords in the East Room, to black tie state dinners. While the Americans pointedly upgraded the visit by putting Harper up overnight at Blair House, their top guesthouse where presidents-elect stay before their inaugurals, the Canadians avoided any ceremonial flourishes. For example, rather than the president and prime minister signing the new NORAD agreement in the East Room, it was simply initialed by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay in Ottawa and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington.

But at their joint news conference in the East Room, Harper pointedly refrained from joining in a chorus of Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Nobody was going to catch him in a song with an American president, an image that dogged Brian Mulroney for years after he and Ronald Reagan, a couple of Irishmen, sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling on St. Patrick's Day at the 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City.

It was enough that Bush had called him Steve, a nickname normally reserved to his close circle of Calgary friends. After their discussion on the requirement for passports or secure identity cards for entering the United States beginning in 2008, Harper noted that "if the United States becomes more closed to its friends, then the terrorists have won." The headline in the next day's Globe and Mail, "Harper cautions Bush," could have been written at the Prime Minister's Office.

But Harper also pointedly said that "Canada and the United States have the strongest relationship of any two countries, not just on the planet, but in the history of mankind."

Renewing excellent relations with the U.S., without getting caught up in a Bush agenda of American exceptionalism, has been Harper's top foreign policy priority from the day he was sworn in.

Harper understands that Canada is seen to be influential in the world only to the degree to which it is perceived as having influence in Washington. Under the Liberals, there was neither a Canadian agenda, nor even a Canadian presence, on the Washington scene. In less than six months in office, Harper has restored good transactional relations without being seen as Bush's toady.

And at last week's G8 Summit, Harper was more closely aligned with the U.S. position supporting the escalated Israeli response to Hezbollah provocations, rather than with the European line calling for a ceasefire.

While many observers found the Israeli response disproportionate, Harper said it was "measured." While others called for restraint on both sides, Harper dared to say that Hezbollah, not Israel, was the spark of hostilities.

At his post-summit press availability in St. Petersburg, Harper bluntly said of the Palestinian Hamas regime: "The current Palestinian government is not committed to a peace process."

And of the current war, in which Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon are backed by Syria and Iran, Harper said "there is a crisis because of the actions of Hamas and the actions of Hezbollah."

You can be certain that these lines were not written at foreign affairs, which likes to strike a balance between support for Israel's right to exist within secure borders to support for a Palestinian state.

But there is a certain moral clarity to Harper's position. He can't be doing it for the votes - the Jewish community votes overwhelmingly for the Liberals, and the Muslim community is clearly disappointed that Harper isn't striking a more nuanced position, especially since an entire family of Lebanese Canadians died in an Israeli rocket attack.

Imagine, a prime minister who dares speak truth not to power, but to terror.

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